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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 3, 2007
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Washington's slaves finally get full Phila. burial

Nine Philadelphia slaves received their proper funeral Tuesday, about 200 years after their deaths.

Nine Africans, held in bondage by President George Washington when Philadelphia was the capital of the nation and slaves toiled all over town, were eulogized by nine children brought together to honor and remember them.

In a demonstration across the street from the site where Washington conducted his presidency in the 1790s, hundreds witnessed what they considered a celebration of freedom, long overdue.

At 6 p.m., after the final eulogy was read, the children simultaneously lifted the tops of nine cardboard caskets laid out on the green grass, and a score of black helium balloons rose into the hazy blue sky over Independence Mall and drifted fast in the wind, heading north.

"The nine are free, and so are we!" chanted the crowd. "The nine are free, and so are we!"

It was the fifth year of demonstrations around Independence Day at Sixth and Market Streets, site of the President's House, where Washington and his successor, the antislavery John Adams, launched the nation.

Each year an activist group — the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition — has demonstrated there, demanding that the federal government and the National Park Service properly recognize and commemorate Washington's slaves, who were quartered at the house site, now steps away from the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

This year was different, however, and not just because of the children. The city and Park Service have excavated the site — the house was demolished in 1832 — and uncovered dramatic evidence not only of white presidential power but also of enslaved African powerlessness.

The foundation of the house and its great bow window — installed by Washington and said to auger the oval rooms in the White House — and the foundation of the slave's world of kitchen and subterranean passageway are now exposed in stark proximity.

The excavation, done in advance of a planned memorial to the house and its residents, has proved a powerful attraction to visitors and has inspired unusual dialogs about power and race in U.S. history.

Now city and Park Service officials are pondering how to incorporate the archeological findings into final plans for the site.

Until recently, not even the names of the slaves were known to the most dedicated historians. Now, on a warm summer day, children could read the names and speak a few words about each slave: Austin, Christopher, Giles, Hercules, Joe, Moll, Oney Judge, Paris and Richmond.

"It's important to me because if it wasn't for our ancestors, we wouldn't have our freedom," said Lacey Malone, 10, from Tredyffrin-Easttown Middle School. She eulogized Hercules, Washington's famed chef. Only he and Oney Judge escaped while in Philadelphia. Oney Judge ended up in New Hampshire, where Washington persistently and unsuccessfully sought her return. Hercules simply vanished.

"I knew George Washington had slaves in Philadelphia," Lacey continued. "It made me feel he was a great president but he wasn't a great person."

Christopher Waters, 10, who attends Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, eulogized Austin, who labored in a variety of capacities for Washington and his wife, Martha. Austin was Oney Judge's half-brother.

"I felt pretty good about doing it," Christopher said. "But I never knew George Washington had slaves!"

The 200 who gathered for the demonstration included several Park Service employees.

Peggy Hartzell of Philadelphia, a descendant of one of Washington's brothers, held a bouquet of fragrant red bee balm in her hands as she listened.

"I think it's a really good thing they've uncovered the slave quarters," she said, "and I don't think they should cover it up quickly."

What you have to do, Hartzell said, is "deal with it."

She laid a red flower on each of the coffins.

 

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